Wednesday, November 13, 2013

The Active Listening Mindset: Non-Judgment

73/365 by Becca Peterson, cc license
Okay! Ready to be non-judgmental? This should be easy. Simply forget all of your current beliefs and opinions and then erase the words "good" and "bad" from your vocabulary. All set!

Seriously, though, judging gets a bad reputation in the active listening world, when our ability to make judgments is often important. In my previous life of preparing volunteers for the crisis hotline, I often reminded them that my goal was not to create "Stepford volunteers" or complete blank slates devoid of personality. Those human elements are essential to connecting. Also, being able to judge, or perceive, how one path forward may be more beneficial than another in an active listening conversation is an important skill to cultivate.

However, it is still important to have a non-judgmental mindset in the context of active listening. Specifically, it is important to remove or mitigate the kind of judgments that get in the way of our primary goal: making the other person feel heard and understood.

Why Non-Judgment?

What happens when you feel judged? Imagine you've been invited to tell the story of your life to a large group of students or peers. As you speak from the front of a large room, you notice the expressions in your audience change from neutral to skeptical. You continue to talk, trying to get your message across, but the negative feedback continues and you begin to get some head shakes and eye rolls, to boot. How do you feel? What is your heart rate like? How do you find yourself reacting? Do you become defensive, pushing your point even harder? Do you become flustered, forgetting your speech and fumbling your words? Or do you just shut down, cutting your talk short?

Active listening is a cooperative activity. In order for you to have something to listen to, the other person needs to be talking. Furthermore, if our goal is to truly understand someone, we need him to be open and honest with his sharing. When someone feels judged, he is less likely to speak openly and honestly and more likely to, simply, stop talking. Being non-judgmental is essential to maintaining an environment conducive to active listening.

The other problem with judgment is that it keeps us firmly in our own perspective. Our judgments come from our own values, beliefs, and experiences, which may be very different from our conversation partner. Being judgmental indicates that we are not, at that moment, successfully seeing and understanding the world from another's perspective.

How to be Non-Judgmental

I've found that attempts to be non-judgmental sometimes translate to disengagement and an attitude of, "Whatever. It's your life, not mine." Certainly, it can be easier to disengage rather than to put aside our own perspective for a time. You may have guessed, though, that disengagement doesn't work for active listening, mostly because it feels like judgment and rejection and has the same impact. So, how can you be non-judgmental and remain engaged without denying your personality and values?

Instead of judging, our job in active listening is to notice. Active listening is objective, rather than subjective, and active listening tools are all geared towards acknowledging, verifying, and exploring what is said (rather than giving subjective evaluation). Non-judgment is similar to showing respect in that it is best accomplished by shifting from the role of an evaluator to a scientist or student role. As you sharpen your skills of observation, focus on noticing, and nurture your natural curiosity, you will replace the inclination to judge.

Practicing Non-Judgment.

The first steps towards practicing non-judgment are, 1) noticing when judgment happens and then, 2) shifting from judgment to observation and curiosity. To practice this shift, try watching a show with lots of dialogue or eavesdrop on a conversation in a coffee shop. Notice and jot down the judgmental statements you hear or anything that implies judgment. Once you have five or more statements to work with, try rewriting them from a place of observation and/or curiosity. For example, "That's a terrible idea..." (judgment) becomes, "You have a plan of action..." (observation) and/or, "Tell me more about how that will work..." (curiosity).

The advanced version of this exercise is to notice and shift your own language. When I focus on this language shift, myself, I'm always amazed at how much it opens a conversation as well as my own state of mind. See how it works for you!

Next in the Active Listening Primer: Identifying and Reflecting Feelings

The Active Listening Primer

Part 1: The Active Listening Mindset
Part 2: Basic Active Listening Skills
Bonus: Prompting Others to Actively Listen

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